The real lesson from Obama's victory

OPINION

Yes, he did. In some ways Barack Obama's re-election as United States president this month was as significant as his victory in 2008.

That famous win four years ago represented a triumph of hope - an affirmation of American universal promise. This year's may not have had the same romantic lustre, but its message was equally profound: it confirmed the dramatically changing face of US society.

This was brought home early on election night two weeks ago. As Republican pundits reconciled themselves with the defeat of their candidate, Mitt Romney, it became clear they were also lamenting something else. As Bill O'Reilly of Fox News reflected, ''The white establishment is now the minority … it's not a traditional America any more.''

The nostalgic yearning for an America of white picket fences won't get Republicans very far (Australian conservatives, take note). Obama's victory demonstrated the political potency of a new progressive ''rainbow'' coalition. Though Obama won only minority support among white males, he enjoyed the emphatic endorsement of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, young people and women.

To our sensibilities, it may seem crude to be referring to blocs of voters in this way. But American politics has always been conducted on the basis of such coalitions. And the state of play now reveals that Republicans have a structural electoral problem. Their conservatism's current appeal is strongest among older white, male voters. It is a recipe for political obsolescence, even if some Republicans insist that the answer lies in their party moving further to the right.

Inevitably, we may ask about the lessons for us here. After all, we do look to the US, and not only as observers with a self-evident interest in the affairs of our most powerful ally and friend.

Australians have certainly sought to borrow from the Washington beltway playbook. For example, when Kevin Rudd defeated John Howard in 2007, US political campaigners advised him on strategy.

If ''working families'', that favoured phrase of Rudd's, sounded strange to Australian ears, there was a good reason why - it was a direct import from US Democratic consultants.

Those on the right of centre similarly look to the US for inspiration. The rise of the Tea Party movement prompted conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen to declare that someone should ''spike the drinks at Liberal Party HQ with this fine imported brew''. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's attempts to cultivate a revolt against the carbon tax were ostensibly the result of sampling the heady ale of Tea Party reactionary populism.

Then, there is the presidentialisation of our politics. Prime ministers, once the first among equals in cabinet, are now de facto presidents. Voters increasingly make their decisions not so much on party lines but on the basis of their judgments about party leaders.

It is, of course, important not to extrapolate too much from US experience. This has been a problem, especially among Australian political operatives entranced by the compelling spectacle of Washington. True to form, soon after the US election it was revealed that the ALP is already making plans to adapt the techniques from Obama's campaign for the 2013 election. Prime Minister Julia Gillard's strategic adviser John McTernan has reportedly been conferring with some of the Obama camp's pollsters.

Yet the differences between the two countries mean any political borrowing will be, at best, imperfect and, at worst, inappropriate. It is hard to see how the techniques used as part of Obama's celebrated ''ground game'' are pertinent to an Australian political system. In America, where voting is optional, efforts to ''get out the vote'' are crucial to any campaign. Here, compulsory voting means the real battle lies in winning over the middle rather than in motivating the base (assuming that both parties are competitive).

And is more polling and micro-campaigning nous really what the Labor Party needs most at the moment? Few would say that what Labor needs is a bigger and better machine, when so much of the party's current problems stem from the excesses of its machine men - when so many in the party are incapable of distinguishing between means and ends in politics.

The real resonance of Obama's re-election may, in fact, go beyond electoral arithmetic and to the question of leadership. In the example of Romney we have an illustration of the dangers of pandering to a zealous fringe: think how much more formidable he would have been had his candidacy been more moderate and centrist. And in the example of Obama we may just have a demonstration that the wisdom of democratic voters rewards a politician who isn't afraid to take big decisions, who is patient enough to back his judgment, and who doesn't speak in a way that dumbs things down to voters.

If we are to draw lessons from US politics, we can begin with emulating some of this.

Tim Soutphommasane is a political philosopher at Monash University and the author of Don't Go Back To Where You Came From. Twitter: @timsout

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